Around the world in savoury cakes

From cauliflower cakes, sushi cakes to prawn cakes, international and regional cuisines have a range of delicious salty bakes

By Raul Dias

When Yotam Ottolenghi, one of the culinary world’s brightest sparks, introduced his rather unique cauliflower cake via his 2014 vegetarian cookbook Plenty More, the food cognoscenti sat up and took notice. Many believed that the Israeli-born chef, who has changed the way the world cooks and looks at vegetables, was on the brink of one of the greatest food discoveries with this savoury cake of his.

Yes, the same visually stunning social media craze that is the sum of its onion, cheese, rosemary, basil, turmeric and of course, cauliflower floret parts. All totted up with a sprinkling of nigella and sesame seeds.

While his idea (a riff on the French savoury cake apéro called cake salés) was indeed brilliant and innovative, it, by no means, was the first of its kind. Several cuisines around the world — including in India — have had a version or two of the savoury cake in their repertoire for eons.

The Portuguese connection

Though not as popular when compared to the more ubiquitous, mainstream Goan cuisine — yes, the same one that’s replete with popular dishes such as chicken xacuti and the bright orange coconut prawn curry — the Portuguese-Goan cuisine is one that is subtly nuanced. And one that’s also highly influenced by the European approach to cooking with its butter and cheese-laden white sauces and baked dishes.

Speaking of baked, the savoury coconut and prawn cake called apa de camarao is a dish that not many people today, even in Goa, know of, leave alone make! Leafing through an old Portuguese-Goan cookbook that my late great aunt had bequeathed to me, I chanced upon this rather easy-to-construct savoury cake.

Made with scraped fresh coconut, rice flour, jaggery, yeast and eggs, the apa de camarao — literally meaning ‘cake of prawns’ — gets its name from its crustacean filling. A tangy, mildly spiced pre-cooked prawn reichado is smeared onto half of the semi-baked, coconut-rice flour batter, while the cake tin is still in the oven.

The reichado is then covered with more batter and baked till the cake is fully done and golden brown. The prawn filling acts as a perfect savoury foil to the slightly sweet, spongy coconut cake layers, making the combination an irresistible one, all topped with boiled egg quarters.

Along the coastline

Made on similar lines, though purely vegetarian, is the Gujarati savoury cake of handvo. This baked savoury cake is made with rice flour, sesame seeds, lentils and often contains a bottle gourd filling.

Usually there is a special handvo cooker that is used to make the savoury cake. It is often baked in an oven or even pressure-cooked now for convenience’s sake. Eaten mainly as a traditional nasto (snack) item for breakfast or afternoon tea, handvo is always served with a chutney, a sweet papaya one being the most common.

In the neighbouring state of Rajasthan, there is also a slightly different version of handvo made and served. Called handva, this savoury cake uses a whole lot more vegetables such as arrots, peas and cabbage that are mixed with gram flour and garam masala and steamed or baked.

Sushi surprise

As one of the least familiar kinds of sushi outside of Japan, chirashi zushi is right up there on the exotic quotient scale. Literally meaning “scattered sushi”, this iteration sees a big bowl of tightly-packed vinegared sushi rice topped with an assortment of goodies. The most popular being slices of raw fish and seafood, as well as vegetarian options such as slivers of avocado and tofu. The sweet-ish Japanese style mayonnaise is drizzled over this sushi along with a sprinkling of furikake, which is a nori (seaweed)-based seasoning condiment.

Over the last few years around South East Asia, and in India too, a slightly modified version of chirashi zushi has been birthed in the form of the sushi cake that has taken the sushi scene by storm. In Mumbai alone, I personally know of at least four businesses that make sushi cakes in all shapes, sizes and colours for every occasion to great demand!

Keeping the basic idea of chirashi zushi at the fore, a sushi cake has a thick base made of vinegared rice which can also be coloured (for example, blue with butterfly pea flowers or pink with beetroot) and decorated with similar aforementioned toppings of seafood, vegetables or tofu. Teriyaki sauce and mayonnaise stand-in for traditional buttercream icing, while bits of carrot and edamame beans take the place of sugarcraft flowers and chocolate buttons, as found atop regular celebratory cakes.

So, how about a colourful sushi cake for your next occasion? Or perhaps you’d prefer a golden brown prawn cake?

-Raul Dias is a food and travel writer based in Mumbai and this article was originally featured on



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